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The extraordinary William James Sidis

“My own definition of the Fourth Dimension would be that it is an Euclidian space with one dimension added. It is the projection of the figures of the Third Dimension into space. The third dimensional figures, such as the cube, are used as sides of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, and the figures of the Fourth Dimension are called configurations.
It is not possible to actually construct models of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, or to conceive of them in the mind’s eye, but it is easy to construct them by means of Euclid’s theorem.”

These words are part of the introduction to a presentation that William James Sidis made on January 5th 1910 at the Harvard Mathematical Club, in front of an audience with the best mathematicians in the United States. Nothing too special, except from the fact that he was just eleven.

The family

It’s worth starting his story from when William’s father, Boris, born October 12th 1867 in Berdychiv (now Ukraine), had to flee the Russian Empire in 1887 from the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, because he was Jewish. His mother, Sarah Mandelbaum, and her family had to do the same in 1889, for the same reasons. They anyway managed to have a successful life in the United States. Boris completed four degrees at Harvard and became one of the most appreciated psychologists of his time, founding the New York State Psychopathic Institute and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Sarah attended Boston University and graduated from its School of Medicine in 1897: to put this into perspective, the first woman to obtain a degree in Medicine was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849; in 1890, there were approximately 100,000 doctors in the United States and just 5% were women….

William James Sidis – named after philosopher William James – was born on April 1st 1898 in New York. His father Boris wished to promote a high intellectual capacity to his son and, being a psychologist, he applied his own approaches to him. His mother Sarah left her medical career to dedicate herself to her son’s education.

The genius

William has been considered among the most intelligent people ever. His family claims that he had an IQ above 250 (where normal is 100 and very good intelligence starts at 140), though all results of any tests he might have passed have been lost and this claim cannot be proved. It is curious that the fundamental source of these IQ allegations is his father Boris, who explicitly considered intelligence testing as silly, pedantic, absurd, and grossly misleading….

Regardless of IQ values, it was reported that William was able to speak before reaching his first year. At 18 months, he would read the newspaper. By the age of eight, he was fluent in eight languages (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) on top of English.

William also created a constructed language called Vendergood in his second book, the Book of Vendergood, which he wrote at the age of eight. The language was mostly based on Latin and Greek, but also drew on German and French and other Romance languages.

Harvard – where Boris studied and became a Professor – refused William as a student in 1907 because he was too young. However, William became the youngest student Harvard ever had in 1909: when he was eleven.

The presentation to the Harvard Mathematical Club was very well received and, after it, MIT professor Daniel Comstock declared to newspapers that William Sidis would become the foremost mathematician of the XX century: no doubt that the story of William’s exploits took the first pages.

He took his Bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1914.
In December 1915, when he was seventeen, William becomes a mathematics teaching assistant at Rice University in Houston, but he resigned because his age (he was younger than his students) and fame were causing issues.

Philosophy and politics

In 1919, William was once again subjected to public scrutiny when he was arrested for participating in an anti-draft demonstration in Boston, which developed into a riot. During the trial – which ended with an 18-months sentence – his unconventional philosophies and his socialist leanings came out. His father managed to keep him out of jail but, under threat of being interned in an insane asylum, kept in his sanatorium.

The decline

William made a significant effort to avoid publicity. He took up a series of simple jobs – clerk, bookkeeper, etc. – moving from an employer to the following one whenever he was recognised. He wrote books, but most of them were under pseudonyms and about unusual subjects, such as  peridromophilia: a word he invented to describe his hobby about transportation means…. Newspapers began to publish mocking articles on his situation and his whole life. One of these from the New Yorker was so bad that William followed up in tribunal. The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he partially won in 1944.

The same year, the prodigy that impressed university professors when he was eleven died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Boston at the age of forty-six, as a forgotten broke office clerk. His father had died of the same cause when he was fifty-six.

His legacy

Who knew him describes of his overwhelming brilliance and his linguistic capabilities: he was reported to speak over forty languages. His sister Helen started a long campaign to rehabilitate his profile and his achievements. A lot of material has now been gathered at the Sidis Archives on the Internet, including his books and articles that were published by him or about him.
Much later, books and articles have been written and research has been conducted, primarily focusing on William’s capabilities. Though fully recognising his astonishing achievements, most of the debate is unfortunately only on his IQ score….

From an overall perspective, it needs to be recognised that his tangible contributions to society are too small when compared to the potential that anyone would see in him. As Alan Bellows reports in his article The Rise And Fall Of William J. Sidis:

“there is considerable evidence that William favoured the Okamakammesset tribal philosophy of anonymous contribution, a principle which implies that one’s value is not measured by one’s visible contributions to society.”

But what’s the point of bearing such unique qualities if no one – not even himself – can take advantage of that?

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